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How Mills are Morphing to Meet Denim’s New Sustainability Standards

In the apparel industry, denim’s negative environmental impact ranks second to none. The world’s most beloved fabric is encumbered by myriad issues at the supply chain level, from water waste to toxic chemical runoff.

But denim is dynamic. Just as it shifts shapes and silhouettes depending on seasonal trends, the material’s manufacturers are morphing their behind-the-scenes operations to meet modern standards for sustainability.

Mills across the world are looking to new methods of crafting denim, using fabrication and finishing techniques that rely on chemical processes and machinery that reduce or eliminate adverse environmental effects. This shift is fueled by hefty investments, some of which return immediate rewards but most are future-facing, long-term ventures that will pay off in myriad ways—just not anytime soon.

The issues that have led to the climate crisis took decades to evolve, so similarly, the solutions to these problems will take time. Here, mill executives discuss the critical changes they’re making today to ensure their operations are easier on the environment tomorrow.

Water conservation

“It’s the future; there is no other alternative,” said Jose Rafael Royo, sales director for Tejidos Royo, when asked about why his mill is investing in long-term sustainable solutions. “Sustainability is not a fashion tool. It is a reality and we must change the way we do things.”

Figures vary depending on who one asks, but most denim experts assert that it takes between 800 gallons and 1,500 gallons of water to produce just one pair of standard jeans. Tejidos Royo has spent a decade looking at ways to slash that number.

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With the help of Gaston Systems, which created a low-moisture foam application system, and Ink My Denims, which crafts custom washes, Tejidos Royo finally landed on a waterless indigo dye that the company insists is 100 percent sustainable.

“Money is not always the reason for adopting new ways of doing things. Sometimes you will save money, and others you will have to invest a lot to change the way things are done,” Royo said. In the formation of Dry Indigo, Tejidos Royo had to shell out for a slasher machine that combines the process of dyeing and sizing.

Though the company has made significant investments into waterless dyeing, Tejidos Royo said that it’s ended up saving on chemical use and energy consumption.

Dry Indigo launched to the masses at the October 2019 Kingpins Amsterdam show. “We have changed the process of dyeing indigo,” Royo said. “For the last 10 years we have invested time, money and human re- sources. It will take time to recover the three of them, but today we have the cleanest way of dyeing indigo in the world.”

Smarter ingredients

“Sustainability is a long-term plan made of continuous investments to support the organic evolution of the process and the product,” Candiani Denim owner Alberto Candiani said. “All mills should be looking to be more efficient, producing with a lower impact,” he added.

The 80-year-old mill, founded by Candiani’s great-grandfather, has come to specialize in “smarter, responsibly sourced ingredients” like recycled cotton in the form of Tencel’s Refibra, along with “bio-synthetic dyestuff, technologies like Kitotex and our nitrogen dyeing system,” he said.

Investing in sustainable elastomers, dyes and polymers costs a lot more than “the conventional stuff,” Candiani said, but it’s a hit he’s willing to take in order to mitigate the mill’s impact.

“These investments are thanks to our non-stop research and development, which is the only division at Candiani that has no budget to respect,” he said.

When asked about the financial benefits to adopting greener processes, Candiani said frankly that those have proven scant. “The new technologies we adopt cost a fortune, and it will take time to get a return on our investments,” he said.

The sustainable advancements mean higher prices for the mill’s customers, which can be a hard pill to swallow for some brands. The market is “not yet accepting of this new generation of denim,” which runs between $6-7 per yard instead of just $4-5, Candiani said. However, he expects the improvements to generate cost savings over time.

“It’s all related to efficiency,” Candiani added. “The smarter, sustainable approach is the one that makes your mill more efficient—even if the initial investments are nuts. The future is tomorrow, not in 10 years. So we keep working to eliminate waste, and continue to invest in what we believe will lower our impact on the environment.”

Efficient tools and processes

“The concept of investment in sustainable manufacturing is by definition a long-term investment in cleaning up our environment,” Mark Ix, director of marketing for Advance Denim, said.

China’s oldest mill, founded in 1987, has made across-the-board supply chain improvements that touch on water waste (reduced by 64 percent in just five years) and chemical content. In September, Advance Denim became the first Chinese mill to adopt Archroma’s non-toxic, aniline-free indigo dye.

“Advance Denim is very clear that their goal is to be the most sustainable mill and we will invest in machinery to reach that goal,” said Ix, adding that the company has installed desulfurization, denitrification and electrostatic precipitation mechanisms to dramatically reduce air pollutants.

“This is a purely sustainable investment with only an environmental payoff,” Ix said.

The mill has also installed a reverse osmosis recycling system that will recycle 100 percent of the wastewater in the mill’s finishing line.

“When you begin with a strategy and initiative to be more sustainable, the majority of your investments towards this goal will not have a financial payoff or payback,” Ix said. “Some investments may help with costs and some may slightly affect the final price—but they will all make us more sustainable.”

Energy efficiency

“Sustainability is extremely important for us. It meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations,” said Saif Islam of Artistic Denim Mills (ADM).

The mill has constructed its own power generation setup, which accelerates the production process of converting cotton to finished garments. The mill’s generation capacity is 15 megawatts, Islam said, with a heat recovery system.

Energy-efficient machine replacements and equipment upgrades have made the advancements possible, along with a focus on renewable energy. Switching to partial solar helps the mill avoid using fossil fuels and other valuable natural resources, Islam said.

“The use of environmental managing software keeps our facilities eco-friendly and sustainable,” he said.

This piece originally appeared in Jean Therapy, the Denim Sustainability Report. Click to read how today’s industry leaders are managing the progress and problems of sustainability in the denim supply chain.